Big O

By Shamus Posted Monday Apr 17, 2006

Filed under: Anime 22 comments

Big O had me hooked right from the start with some interesting ideas, and then failed to follow through. Or at least, it failed to go where I hoped it would. There are several conflicting ideas in here, and I would have liked the series a lot more if it had just picked one and done it well. No real spoilers here. I’m going to mostly talk about what I thought I was going to see.

Side note: I watched it cold. I didn’t know what it was about, who the characters were, or even what genre I was dealing with. Because it came through Netflix and I didn’t pick it myself, I didn’t even know what the box art looked like.

The story opened up with an interesting premise: It takes place in Paradigm City, a domed but othewise very Gotham-style city that seemed to be more or less isolated. Many years ago everyone in the city lost their memories all at once. Nobody knows why or how. They eventually put things back together and life is more or less normal now, but here you have an entire city that lost their identity and had to find themselves a new one. The implications are pretty astounding.

The story follows “Negotiator” Roger Smith as he takes various dangerous jobs. He looks a bit like Bruce Wayne, has a butler that looks a LOT like Alfred, and lives in a very gothic building that is not dissimilar to Wayne Manor. His first job has him recovering a one-of-a-kind android who looks like a young girl but is very strong, deadly, humorless, literal, and without emotion. Oh, and she has (I’m not kidding) a DVD-style disc tray built into her forehead.

Near the end of the first episode I noticed that it wasn’t going where I thought it was going. I was hooked by the amnesia idea, and I was anxious for the story to get back to it. I was still trying to get a handle on what sort of story this was when a huge robot started stomping around the city. I’m thinking, “Wow. This is a toughie. How is Roger Smith going to get rid of it? Talk it into going away?

Then Roger shouts into his watch, “BIG O!” and a massive Robot comes out of the pavement right where he’s standing. He gets in, and the two robots punch each other for a while. They have trouble doing real damage to each other, but they give the surrounding city a real pounding.

So for me the series started out with this idea about mass amnesia, then forgot all about it and drove us right into anime cliche’ hell. We went from interesting sci-fi premise to Batman ripoff to Cliche Robot Girl to Mechas having a Godzilla-style brawl in the big city. This series is like frankenstein’s monster: There are a whole lot of seperate ideas crudely sewn together and animated without thought to what the consequences might be. As you might have guessed: The end result isn’t pretty.

Did I mention there is also a sexy woman who is so mysterious we don’t even know why we should care about her? Or the goofball religious iconography? Or the Joker-looking villian?

I stopped watching around disc 4 or so. Maybe the story got better, but it was already such a mess I didn’t want to hang around and find out.

Having said that, I still love the idea of an isolated city where everyone lost their memories, and where almost all other records were lost. What sort of effect would that have on they way people interact? What would their culture be like? How would they go about even choosing names for themselves? What would it be like if everyone had to choose their own name? If the online world is any indication, guys would be named stuff like, “DaReapaMan” and “Ph3arless”. Maybe they would name themselves after mythological creatures or heroes. It’s a very safe bet nobody would name themselves Roger Smith.

What do you do with all the money in the bank now that nobody knows who owns it, or even who owns the bank? How would people decide where to live? Would they roam the city, trying their key in every lock? What do you do with the people in prison now that you no longer know their crime or the length of their sentence?

But no: The whole memory loss thing is just a plot device used to explain why people don’t know about the mechas or where they came from. To me, this is a sloppy plot device. Everyone loosing their memories is a much bigger deal than giant robots. The mass amnesia, not the robots, would be the central story of the city.

Imagine how people would act in that moment when their memories go. You’re riding an elevator with a woman. You look at each other. Who is she? Your sister? Wife? Boss? Nemesis? Someone you’ve never met?

What if a woman found herself standing over the body of someone who was just shot to death, and she was holding a gun? Did she do it? Or was this a friend, who she was rushing to help? Perhaps the two of them were undercover cops together? Maybe they were lovers. Maybe one of them is a burgler.

What about the guy who is in prison? Now he’s forced to wonder what he did to get in here? Murder someone? Steal a car? Fight city hall?

I could go on like this forever. This premise generates an endless number of facinating situations that could lead to great stories. Unlike in Big O, where people just shrugged and muddled on, I think this event would have a huge significance to everyone. They would, at the very least, have a name for the day. It would be something simple, like “day zero”.

Roger Smith would be some sort of investigator, working a few years after this event. Each episode could have someone coming to him for help. As in, “I have this picture of a woman in my wallet and I wonder if she has a picture of me. Maybe we were married. Help me find her.”

His clients would tell their versions of Day Zero in flashback, and then Roger would go about trying to help them. Sometimes he’d learn things they didn’t want to know. Sometimes he wouldn’t be able to help them at all, and the mystery would remain.

Imagine this one: A guy was released from jail on Day Zero, since nobody knew what he did. He’s spent the intervening years helping old folks find and secure homes for themselves, as well as running an ad-hoc orphanage for kids who weren’t with their parents on Day Zero. All this time it’s been nagging at him what he’d done to get into jail. Roger Smith out finds that the man was one of the most sadistic and prolific murderers the city had ever seen. The man (and thus the audience) get to ponder some big questions about what makes us who we are. It’s said that our actions define us, but what if we no longer know what those actions are?

Now the man has to decide what to do with himself, knowing what he used to be. Would he take Roger’s evidence to the authorities and turn himself in again? Kill himself? Would curiosity drive him to learn more about who he was, or perhaps try to become him again?

As the story progressed, we would learn more and more about the events before Day Zero. We’d get little glimpses of the pre-amnesia city and how it worked. There would be clues and dangers and occasionally there would be people who seemed not quite as lost as everyone else. There would be secrets and battles and eventually the end of the series would explain the events that led to Day Zero.

All of that would be a lot more exciting than the robot punching thing they have going.


From The Archives:

22 thoughts on “Big O

  1. You need to watch the live-action movie “Dark City”, if you haven’t already. It’s the story you wanted to watch, about a city where everyone has lost their memories, which actually does explore that and does so very well. A superb movie!

  2. Shamus says:

    Yeah. I should have mentioned Dark City in my tirade. It is also very gothic, which is another reason I thought this one was headed in the same direction. I mean, Sci-Fi? Gothic? Mass amnesia? It must be Dark City again!

    A lot of people like this series, and it may be better than I’ve given it credit for. Maybe this was just a case of getting my hopes a lot higher than the ambitions of the writers.

    Also, after thinking about the story I thought this was, it made me realize that the idea still hasn’t been fully explored. This thing is a goldmine of half-hour story ideas.

  3. HC says:

    On one level, Big O is a nicely animated series about giant robots and urban renewal.

    On another, it is a thoroughly obscure melange of signs, portents, and red herrings. The ending of the second season is not representative, but it is a paragon of its kind – no one knows what happened in that episode. No one, and anyone who says different is selling something.

    If your particular perversities incline that way, this makes for a fair amount of fun to be had while attempting to untangle matters. If not, I hope you like giant robots. And Art Deco design.

    That said, if they’d been trying to produce a coherent plot instead of a Rorschach blot, they would have done better to try something more like your idea. In fairness, they do have half a dozen stories along the lines of memories past, but more often the stories involve… giant robots. And urban renewal.

    Also, Dark City _is_ great.

  4. Dan says:

    First of the idea YOU described is a very interesting and intreging. It makes me want to watch Dark City. Also if I had to name myself I would choose the name captain slinky the south street bucket murderer. That way I don’t have to worry about someone else picking the same name.

  5. . says:

    I watched about half of the first episode of Big O before deciding it wasn’t worth my time. It’s just one of those shows designed to capitalize on the fanboyism of people who watch Adult Swim (whatever Adult Swim is showing must be good, right?). Inuyasha? Blech.

  6. Dan says:

    I used to enjoy Inuyasha. the key word there being USED. I now relize it is complete garbage
    Now full metal alchemist on the other hand is another story.

  7. Eric says:

    BIG O gave me an annerisnm(which explains why i can’t spell it). yes it was cool idea(as was dark city), the problem with it, was they think enough as how to portray it correctly, and in a way that would keep it fresh.(SPOILER ALERT!!!!) In the last season the robots are now alive, they control the people. WTF? They just totally went of the wall so far man. I know this is a bit of topic but, Wolf Rain was a good mix of scifi, and theology that it kicked ass and is highly reccomended. Not a real theology, I don’t think, but it should be checked out by you shamus you’ld enjoy it.

  8. . says:

    Full Metal Alchemist is garbage. I gave it a serious chance, watched I think … 25 or so episodes. It never improves. It has some seriously adult themes, but it only gives them very superficial treatment. All of the villains are the same, and the two main characters are probably the least likeable characters in the show. It’s unimaginative, tedious, and downright offensive if you don’t happen to agree with its major themes.

  9. Joe says:

    First: I agree in that the story had *so* much more potential than it followed through on.

    However, the reason for the amnesia shtick is this: the series was written to be circular. The last episode circles around to the first, *causing* an event that makes everyone lose their memories.

  10. Chris says:

    Big O: It’s interesting if you’ve never seen it, but it meanders about without having any real plot or point. It’s a rip-off of Giant Robo, which was also a little thin on plot but not nearly to the extent Big O was, and with much more idiosyncratic and engrossing characters and art design. Big O’s Art Deco and Batman inspirations may be very striking compared to a lot of shows around today, but Giant Robo’s Retro-Futurism and Ancient China stick in your head a lot longer after the fact.

    I’d recommend picking up Giant Robo instead of watching Big O, and I saw Big O first.

    Full Metal Alchemist: The show is remarkably superficial and thin beyond the first arc, while the original manga (fanboys refuse to allow me to call it a comic–or even a “komikku”) might not be Crime and Punishment, but Hiromu Arakawa was more interested in actually telling an honest-to-goodness story with her work. The show has no real character development, contradicts its own themes near the end, and spent an awful lot of time dwelling on a thinly-veiled-allusion-to-real-world-Mideast-crises.

    I’m not a big fan of Adult Swim’s offerings. But I turn on the TV to give them the ratings, because darnit they try. Ironically, the least appealing show in their lineup, Eureka 7, managed to somehow become watchable around the time the main girl got a haircut. And I can’t say the same for their Vampire shows, sadly.

    Inu Yasha… Well, it’s not like it had any more ambitions beyond “last as long as possible.”

    And that’s my take on it.

  11. jack says:

    in all fairness, the plot was a tad weak, and after watching the entire series in one sitting the ending made me want to kill somebody. but after all is considered big o is on my top ten best animes at number 2(just under gundam wing). the visuals were just plain stuning. and who honestly has a problem with big robots beating the piss out of each other?

    there are way worse animes out there ( especialy on adult swim,blech and full metal alchemist are strictly for the mentaly slow and small children, as there minds are too weak as is to comprehend anything more)

    in short you have to watch big o with an open mind and the realization that it story revolves around its characters. their opinions of each other, how they interact with their left over world, and the search for the answer to a question we all have: who are we really?

  12. edcalaban says:

    Big O caused trauma. I still have NO IDEA what was really going on. Was there actually a war with giant robots pre memory loss? Was everyone actually a little baby robot? Where the robots alive? What the @*$Y is up with Rosewater’s book? And where did the stagelights in the sky come from? I just don’t understand…

    I still like the crazy guy who controlled big Duo though. I found him to be an enjoyable villain.

  13. Nate says:

    Well, I have a theory on what happened, so and am going to try and explain it. Spoilers aplenty, but since it seems most people don’t have an interest in watching the show, not like I am ruining anything.

    Ok, here goes:
    Have you seen the Truman show? The one with Jim Carey and growing up in front of millions of people on tv?

    Well lets start with that premise. Only that in this story, Christof wrote out how things were supposed to happen up to a point, and instead of using real people, he uses a combination of sentient robots and holograms. And he’s a girl.

    But, the story was fully completed. The ending is out in the open, and what better way to try and find an ending than to create an artificial world where sentient beings take your version of history and run with it?

    The reason everyone forgot “40 years ago” was because they didn’t exist “40 years ago”. The whole story begins at the same point in a Groundhog Day attempt of the Author to re-create the perfect ending to the story she created. Thus the cyclical scene at the end of season two. The “show” had to re-set, because the author wasn’t happy with the ending.


    The problem with using sentient beings to play out a story is that not all of them are going to play by the rules. Thus you get characters like Schwarzwald, who are able to break the “fourth wall” within the Big O world to try and reveal the truth that they are all just automatons. You have emergent behavior as is properly defined. The problem in the “Big O world” is that the characters keep discovering the nature of their world and because they are still sentient, the storyline goes out into right field as the characters grapple with the newly understood form of reality.

    That is why nobody travels far outside the city and flying is off-limits, just like how Truman could not leave his island and his attempts to leave were met with significant resistance.

    They go through the same thing Bill Murray does in Groundhog Day, only that they retain no memory of previous iterations.

    It is like the world of Big O is like a video game story being told from the perspective of an avatar within the game. Some avatars are being controlled directly by the world mechanics (like an NPC) whose entire purpose is to further the plot by some means. Characters like Big Ear, the “freaks of the week”, Dorothy, are all predetermined in their interactions. Some avatars are being controlled by something else (be it a player or destiny) and are the ones that are experiencing the story. This would be Roger, Angel, Rosewater, and Beck (to a degree).

    Imagine, for a second, that you are playing WoW or any MMO game. Now, in this version of the game, your avatar (character) is self-aware, but not aware that they are an avatar and that you are largely influencing their life and well being. For the most part they do everything you want them to and follow the plot as you desire. They don’t realize that they aren’t always the source for their actions.

    One day, your avatar discovers that it is an avatar being controlled by a player, and that it’s entire life has been imaginary. Just like how your WoW character starts of as a full grown adult with a complete history that was a complete lie, so do all the characters in Big O. I mean, why are there children in WoW if you aren’t born? It’s because the player takes control of the avatar after certain preconditions have already been met.

    The “tomato” plot arc is Roger coming to terms with the fact that he is a character with a pre-determined role in the world of “Big O”. His realization of this, and his resistance to his role, is what causes “lag” between him and Big O. The characters in the story are only able to be a part of the story so long as they accept their roles.

    This is what causes the “not Big-O” storyline experience where Roger is shown what it is like to *not* be an important character. When faced with this alternate reality where he has no significance, he decides that he would much rather have been significant and accept his fate rather than be insignificant with complete freedom to define himself in a “normal” world.

    Again, that is why the series ended the way it did. Too many characters were not only aware of their role in the world of Big O, but they were trying to exploit it. That is why Beck was laughing when Dorothy was able to act while not supposed to be able to, because her avatar was violating the roles of her character. Beck realized his role was the comedic relief, always meant to be the foil of the main character.

    I think this is the best explanation I have for the plot/ending/story in Big O. It also explains why the Author shed a tear when Roger was so willing to accept his fate. The Author had, much like Christof, a strong emotional attachment to Roger, so to have to “re-set” him again would cause a lot of greif. I mean, to have your characters develop such a vibrant experience only to erase their memories and try again? That’s like deleting a high-leveled avatar because you want a different name (I know that some games will allow you to change names now but I am ignoring that).

    I didn’t write the show so I can’t say what the original authors intended, but I think this allows for the complexity in the storyline that many people were looking for. It also allows for explanation of how people could easily re-learn and use technology that took mankind many thousands of years to invent, and in some cases could never invent at all (the Mega Deus’s).

    If you read all that then thank you ^_^
    Hit me up if you want want my take on a specific happening within the Big O series with regards to this theory. Or feel free to send me your own ideas. My email is my myspace tag at yahoo dot com.

  14. Zephyr Zero says:

    I agree with Nate’s sentiments on the Big O series. Having watched all of it, and the way the characters not just act.. but what they specifically say dialogue wise. Such as talking about “learning they are just dolls on an elaborate stage for their creators.” It really helps to explain and understand the entire story of Big O, and where it was headed and how the story worked.

    In other sentiments… Inu-yasha would be a decent anime, but the fact each person uses everyones name SO MUCH… really ruins the experience. I sat one night, and counted how many times Inu-yasha’s name was used in the one episode. After much observation and irritation, the example of Inu-yasha’s name being repeated in general happens a good 15-20 time average per episode.

  15. kalvin says:

    i agree that big o was the best i think of it had great music and the charecters did what they had to do .the person who anime big o and was the person who had imaged and drew him was a good artist.

  16. Paulus says:

    I watched the series for the third time recently and think you guys have hit it. My issue though is the scenes they repeat with legions of Big O’s walking around.

    Are those true memories or not? From my understanding the event of 40 years ago was when everyone determined that they were infact on a stage before the reset took place.

  17. Crowbar says:

    I liked Big O, even with all the clumsy religious elements and robot battles, but I totally agree with you. Pulling out the giant robots would make a much cooler show (except Dorothy. She’s cool.)

  18. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Sooooo after looking this over again, I have to disagree with the idea that people would need to name themselves. You would almost have to make the assumption that most of the people carry some form of ID. Since most people have ID you would be able to match them up with the bank account that is theirs. Inmates in prisons have ID numbers that are usually attached to their uniforms. it would be easy enough to match them up with their crime and sentence. Realisticly Roger Smith’s job would be more of a desk job. He would get case files in and proceed to match people up with thier jobs, banks, and other family. I dont see there actually being that much foot work involved. It would be fun to watch him get mad at his printer and then scream big o into his watch. Roger Smith knows how to handle a paper jam!

  19. Alaska Slim says:

    I thinks unfair to limit Big O as a “wanting to get to the robot fights”, that was both a parody and a criticism, a homage to shows of the past, but only on the surface as to what it was about, much similar to another mecha series it took inspiration from, and of which Big-O's creator, Chiaki Konaka, is an admitted fan.

    As a show, it has engaging characters, a befitting soundtrack, and a absolutely consuming story, all right, so they didn’t really advantage of one of the glaring aspects of this story, but there is an in-universe explanation for that, that being, Roger is no different than the rest, he just as clueless, and seemingly just as apathetic about it, wanting to get on with his life, until it comes back to hit him in the face and causes his own loss of motivation, where he then must find himself, and that's where the true beauty of the series lies, in his own search for purpose in a world where nihilism seems to be constantly knocking at the door.

    There is also this we must consider: It is unfinished, the work was supposed to have a third season, but nothing came of it, so it is forever a story without a conclusion, leaving plot points and mysteries we are only left to speculate on.

  20. sebcw1204 says:

    shamus, i would love it if they made a show based around your premise. as for it being like dark city; not really. that movie had people REPEATEDLY losing their memories every day and ended with a rather ridiculous super-power fight.
    mabye you should pitch your idea (somehow) to some manga and anime companies (the usual evolution is from manga comic book to anime TV series)

  21. Kevin says:

    Nate, your explanation is the best I’ve read so far, because there are too many that say a lot without telling you anything, like pointing out the religious and philosophical themes, but they fail to make sense of it in a clear summary. There are still some unanswered questions, but I doubt a third season will be made, not that it’s entirely necessary.

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